This novel follows journalist Jake Barnes in his adventures around the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s and Pamplona during the bullfights. He describes the days and nights of British and American expatriates around these cities, drinking and falling for and out with each other. As a paragraph toward the end of the novel sums up: “That was it. Send a girl off with one man. Introduce her to another to go off with him. No go and bring her back. And sign the wire with love. That was it all right. I went in to lunch” (243). The escapades of this “Lost Generation,” as Gertrude Stein called them, are perhaps best characterized by Jake’s friend Mike, who says, “This is all awfully amusing, but it’s not too pleasant” (207). And certainly, the events of the novel are in fact quite amusing, but certainly not pleasant for those involved in them.
The central conflict in the novel centers around Jake’s love for Lady Brett Ashley and his never explained war wound which has left him impotent. Lady Brett is twice-divorced, and throughout the novel dates Jake, her fiancée Mike, and Jake’s friend Robert Cohn. Jake and his friend Bill leave the Paris nightlife for a week of fishing in Spain, a rather idyllic existence which is soon interrupted by the arrival of their compatriots from Paris, who join them for the running of the bulls. Jealous tension soon builds around Brett, who becomes interested in the bullfighter Romero, whom Robert Cohn beats up in a drunken, jealous fit. The novel ends in the aftermath of the fiesta, with Brett summoning Jake to Madrid after Romero has left her: Brett imagines the two of them as a couple, an idea to which Jake responds, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (251). The romance of what might have been, rather than actually was, is the primary theme of the novel, a theme which is emphasized by Hemingway’s spare, yet evocative, prose.